Emma Hamilton as Circe
by George Romney, 1782
George Romney painted over 60 portraits of Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton (nee Amy Lyon) in his lifetime, both nude and clothed, as mythical figures, literary figures, allegorical figures, as a mother. I know from my late husband’s reading, that Emma Hamilton eventually became obese, so later paintings must have been made from earlier sketches. For a fuller account of the career of Emma Hamilton, please see Ladies of the Demi Monde and Lady Emma on a blog I just found and love, called The French Sampler. A few of his most famous renderings of Lady Hamilton are shown here.
Lady Hamilton in a Straw Hat
by George Romney, 1782-1784
Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante
by George Romney, 1785
One of the mythical roles in which Romney cast Emma was that of a bacchante. A bacchante was the ancient Greek version of a party-animal, a votary of the god of wine, Bacchus, whose more formal name is Dionysis. It seems to me that bacchante describes a more benign, though drunken reveler, and one can see why this mythical role was an attractive one for artists. They could portray a woman en dishabille and ready to engage in any imaginable impropriety. A bacchante was also a popular theme in ancient Greek art, often portrayed on vases.
In ancient Greece, a bacchante had a rather more frightening persona. She could be a maenad, the Greek definition of which is “raving one.” These Greek women, according to myth, followed Dionysis into the hills, where they would become first ecstatic, in an alcohol and dance induced state, then frenzied and irrational, actually tearing live animals apart in a mob action, called a sparagmos. The Greek playwright, Euripides, recounts the ritual murder of a King of Thebes, who tries to ban the worship of Dionysis, by his mother and sister, who are under the impression that they’ve just ripped the head off a Mountain Lion. Lady Hamilton, I’m happy to say, appears to be just a reveler heading for the hills. She does appear to have the horns of a goat in her hands though. I sincerely hope Romney was intending to portray a live goat. The fact that it’s body doesn’t show in the painting could suggest that it is body-less. Ghastly thought.
Emma Hamilton as Medea — Euripidean pose, if ever I saw one
A bacchante is an apt alter-ego for Emma Hamilton, however. Not that she was a drunkard, but in Greek and Roman drama, a maenad or bacchante would abandon their role as wives and mothers (and all roles prescribed for them by men in a sexist society) and become something fearsome and terrible. Euripides play, the Bacchai (see above), is one of several he wrote that appear designed to make men feel uncomfortable. (Thomas Cahill comments on this in his Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, specifically discussing Euripides play, Medea.) Emma Hart Hamilton was a woman of scandal. She grew up working as a maid, then became a costumer and hair-dresser for actresses, then fell into the role of a hostess of men’s drinking parties. Some enterprising and brilliant women have made a career of such a role, holding a salon where intelligentsia, artists, writers and politicians have gathered regularly, women as disparate as Aspasia and Madame de Stael. (I read a biography of Madame de Stael when I was in highschool for French class and the only thing I remember from it, alas, is the word and concept of a salon. A hostess she definitely was, a friend and enemy of the mighty. Napoleon was her rival. Even he, however, said, according to the Memoirs of Mme. de Remusat, that she “teaches people to think who never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think.”)
Lady Hamilton as Miranda by George Romney, 1780
Emma Hart didn’t hold the reins of her own fate, however. Her first lover, a lout who preferred drinking and hanging out with his male friends to her company, jilted her when she became pregnant. She was then assisted by one of his drinking mates, a Charles Francis Greville, becoming his mistress and a “professional beauty.” It was at that time that Romney began painting her. Greville eventually found that his need for a wealthy widow exceeded his need for a gorgeous girlfriend and packed Emma off to Naples to visit his uncle, the English Envoy, ostensibly as a vacation. Emma was under the impression that Greville needed to travel to Scotland for business. She was furious to find that he was in fact getting married. To her good fortune, the uncle, Sir William Hamilton, turned out to be a very sympathetic man, so to speak. He was anxious to relieve himself of the burden of a penniless relative, Greville, by taking his nephew’s mistress off his hands. Moreover, he was a widower, in his fifties, fond of female companionship, and, as it turns out, not the jealous type. It was as Lady Hamilton that Emma eventually met the English Naval hero, Horatio Nelson, and became one of the superstars of British romantic tabloids. She and Nelson carried on a love affair until his death at Trafalgar.
Emma Hamilton as Miranda from Shakespeare’s Tempest
Sketch for Miranda
Another of Emma Hart as Miranda. I just came upon a Website that claims she posed for George Romney over 330 times.
Lady Hamilton as Circe, the sorceress of the Odyssey. (See my Blog of Odysseus and Circe, February 3, 2011)
Lady Hamilton as a bacchante in a more restful pose
Lady Hamilton as a vestal virgin (ancient Roman priestess)
I so love this painting.
Detail of Ariadne (see below)
Emma Hamilton as Ariadne, the princess of Crete who helped Theseus kill the minotaur and find his way our of the labyrinth, by George Romney, 1785-86. Ariadne was later abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, after she went on a wild spree as a bacchante, ironically enough (at least that’s the story Mary Renault tells in her great historical novel, The King Must Die.). Romney worked both ends of this myth.
Lady Hamilton as Cassandra, the prophetess who foretold the doom of Troy. “Bad boy, Paris!”
Wow, what a gorgeous painting! Lady Hamilton as St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music, by George Hamilton
Emma Hamilton was “the definitive contemporary incarnation of timeless beauty,” according to The Judgement of Paris, a forum for discussing topics related to plus sized beauty, which I read for a detailed blog of Emma’s career as the English beauty of her age. This blog entry is really good; I highly recommend it. Even though she ate commensurately with her appetite and complacently watched her figure become more “Olympian” as time went on, hers was not an age when emaciation or androgyny was admired in women. It was NOT the fashion.
Lady Hamilton as Mary Magdalene by George Romney
Lady Hamilton Praying by George Romney
George Romney made Emma Hamilton famous. Even though she didn’t live in England for much of her life, but rather in Naples, he used his early sketches as material for later compositions. William Hamilton also invited artists from all over the world to come paint his wife in Naples. As a connoisseur of antiquities and objets d’art, he enjoyed seeing his wife’s beauty celebrated.
Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney, 1785